I AM well aware that early in 1946 I wrote a London Letter explaining why it was likely that Winston Churchill would give up the leadership of the Conservative Opposition in the House of Commons at an early date. Among the readers of that article was Mr. Churchill himself, who chatted briefly about it with the author, in an entirely goodhumored manner.
But he did not give up the leadership. He remained the boas and he still is. Therefore, such sad credit as I may have derived from my earlier prediction that the Conservatives would be badly defeated in the 1945 general election has been dimmed by false prophecy concerning Mr. Churchill.
In fact, such is the unpredictability of human affairs that the future of Winston Churchill has now become an engrossing topic. With some trepidation, therefore, I intend to deal with that subject now, well aware that the disproved prophet is like the bird with a broken pinion which never flies so high again.
It must fie remembered that in politics a man’s accumulated years do not stand against him as in other professions. When France was faltering in 1918 the French turned to the 77-year-old Clemenceau. In Germany, under the Weimar Republic, the people put their trust in the aged Hindenburg. Today the Prime Ministers of South Africa and Canada are septuagenarians, and in Britain they still recall the great days of Gladstone who formed his last Government at the age of 83.
Therefore, the 73-year-old Winston Churchill is in the great, tradition. In fact, looking at his pink, cherubic face and listening to his ringing voice one feels that here is someone whom the gods love and have even given some of their immortality.
Then, why was there ever any thought that he would resign the active leadership of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons? Well, for one thing, he had before him the tragic spectacle of Lloyd George, victor and autocrat of the First World War, who clung to office until he was defeated in 1922 at the age of 59 and lived in the political wilderness until his death at the age of 82.
In his book, “The Aftermath,” Churchill wrote pungently about the errors of a man who thinks that he can carry on, once the pinnacle of his achievements has been reached. He pointed out that Lloyd George should have accepted his defeat
and become an elder statesman, guiding not only his own people but the troubled nations of the world. The enemy of no party but the friend of all, his authority in the House of Commons would have been enormous. Thus wrote Churchill, the historian.
He Knew Better
BUT WHEN the time came Churchill, the politician, made exactly the same mistakes as L. G. You will remember that in the 1914-18 war Lloyd George headed a Coalition Government in which the Tories had a majority, but Bonar Law, as Tory Leader, was content to be his loyal and devoted second-in-command. Yet when the election of 1922 came Lloyd George made cruel fun of Bonar Law as a second-rater.
In the 1939-1945 war Churchill had the Socialists as his partners in the coalition and they served him loyally and well. But when the election came Churchill derided his wartime colleagues as enemies of society. So far the parallel with Lloyd George was complete. In both elections the people refused to accept their hero’s version. I never thought the Tories had a real chance in 1945, but if we had Churchill’s famous first broadcast destroyed it.
During the election Churchill made a triumphant, tour of selected constituencies, being received by cheering crowds with some hostile booing thrown in. It is a matter of record that practically every one of these constituencies proceeded to return a Socialise I can understand the voting but I cannot gauge the distorted malice which caused people to boo the man who saved them from terrible defeat.
So we assembled at Westminster, the Socialists 400 strong and the Conservatives less than half that total. One of my friends in the party looked at Churchill on our Front Bench and murmured to me: “Which is worse—for a Roman Emperor to have to lead a decimated platoon, or for a decimated platoon to be led by a Roman Emperor?”
Not only were we few in number but there were more new boys than old. It was one of the loneliest experiences of my life after 10 years in Parliament, to look upon strange faces in every part of the House.
It soon became apparent that we, as an opposition, were going to have a difficult task under Churchill’s brilliant but Continued on page 35
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spasmodic leadership. He would not regularize Eden’s position as deputy leader but left him to take charge if he, Churchill, did not turn up. Just as we were preparing to fight to the last ditch against the nationalization of the Bank of England, Churchill got up and said that it seemed a harmless little bill. Eden’s face flushed with anger and there were loud mutterings on the Tory Bench.
Then came the American loan with all its threat to Empire economic unity, and Churchill advised the party to abstain from voting. Instead, 90 of us voted against it. Then Churchill went to America.
I can now reveal that there were secret meetings in which it was decided to ask Churchill on his return to elevate himself to the position of Generalissimo, with Lord Salisbury as leader of the Lords, Mr. Eden as leader in the Commons and Lord Woolton as chairman of the party. It was about that time that I predicted that he would give up the leadership in the Commons.
I do not know what happened, whether the plan was put to him or whether it was just hinted. He certainly knew that there was a strong feeling that he should promote himself above the day-to-day authority in the House, but when the smoke cleared away he was still on the Front Bench as the boss Anthony Eden, who had sat on the steps of the throne through the reigns of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Churchill still sat on the steps except that the throne had now gone.
So two years passed with the Socialists unbeaten in every by-election where they had held the seat in 1945. It was, and still is, a remarkable record, and it seemed that the boast of the Socialists that they were in for 20 years was likely to prove true. So low were the Tory fortunes that Herbert Morrison tauntingly offered to advise us how to be an effective opposition. Our reply, I must say, nearly blistered the pages of Hansard.
In the meantime Churchill was predicting bloodshed and famine in India, demanding our withdrawal from Palestine, denouncing the evacuation from Egypt and Burma as poltroonery, ridiculing the Socialists as arrogant,
witless blunderers, and generally punching his opponents without any regard for the Queensbury rules.
Young Socialist M.P.’s, who would have trembled in his presence during the war, baited him but he shook them off like a bull tormented by fleas. Then Herbert Morrison told them to keep quiet. “He’s too big for you,” he said bluntly, but behind closed doors. Britain’s prestige was waning in the world, her true economic position was becoming exposed but Churchill spoke, as he did in the war, for a nation great in her past and facing a mighty destiny.
Back on the Pedestal
Whenever it. was known that he was going to make a speech, the benches and the galleries were crowded. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, there came hack to the people the realization that we had an immortal in our midst, a man who would live as long as history itself, until even those of us privileged to sarve with him would be regarded as of some importance merely because we sat and listened.
Perhaps because the people had been led with such strength in the war, they voted for an easier master in peace. Perhaps because Churchill spoke in the war as from a mountaintop the people wanted the softer notes of the valley. Perhaps because he was supreme in battle they thought he would fail in the years of reconstruction. Perhaps it was the instinct of the Lilliputians to strike down the giant who dwarfed them.
Whatever the reason, the attitude toward Churchill has begun to change. Never once had he charged the electorate with ingratitude, nor challenged their right to do with him as they chose. Not in a single speech did he remind them of his services in the war or pose as the weary Titan. With ringing voice and inspired language he called upon his tired, disillusioned countrymen to be worthy citizens of a nation ordained to be great or perish.
When the royal wedding took place, and Churchill entered the Abbey merely as a private guest, there was a spontaneous move as the assembled people rose to their feet in tribute. To whom? To the Leader of the Opposition? No. To Churchill, as Churchill. The s ime thing had happened to the old Duke of Wellington when Victoria was married. Once in a century, no more.
Then came his 73rd birthday, not a particularly auspicious date in a man’s life or of any great interest, hut it, brought such tributes in the press and from people as can hardly ever have been accorded to a living man. In their editorials, newspapers that had often criticized him declared that not only was he the greatest living Englishman but might well be regarded as the greatest Englishman who ever lived. Like Shakespeare he had given language to all that was finest in the British race. Like Drake he had sustained the courage of his people against immeasurable odds. Like Milton he had proclaimed the triumph of the spirit over the material.
lias He the Votes?
Churchill would have to be less than human not to he touched by the chorus of praise, but I can imagine him lighting his cigar and saying: “Five times was I dismissed by constituencies which I represented in Parliament. For 10 years before the war of 19391 wasnot deemed fit to hold office. I became Prime Minister without an election, but as soon as the people were allowed to vote they threw me out. Therefore, while I like the sound of this sweet music, I shall not order a halo just yet.
It is not for nothing that my family motto is ‘Courageous but Unfortunate.’ ”
Perhaps he foresaw that in a few days’ time the electors of Gravesend would return a Socialist instead of a Churchill Tory. He made no public comment on that staggering result, but maybe he reminded himself that in an election it is not as the loud have spoken but as the dumb have voted.
But what I think is happening is that the men and women of Britain are beginning to visualize the tonic effect of Churchill returning to No. 10 Downing Street. There would be snarls and growls and threats of trouble, but the nation as a whole would feel its chest expanding and its pride returning. Once again Britain might become an island of Churchills as it was in the war.
Beyond the confines ot the island there would be long and sustained rejoicing in the U. S. A., where Winston’s popularity has never waned. I must not speak for Canada, because someone or other in Ottawa always gets angry when I dare to voice the sentiments of the country of my birth, but I have my own ideas of what Canadians would feel. Nor do I believe thal Australia and New Zealand, although blessed by Socialist Governments, would be immune from the general rejoicing. Beyond that I must not travel in the Empire or it will fill up all my remaining space.
“A Very Good Chance”
Then is it likely that the Conservatives will win the next general election and that Churchill will be Prime Minister again? For the time being I have retired from the business of prophesying, but since one man’s guess is as good as another’s, I must say that the Conservatives have a very good chance, although their majority might be insufficiently large to form a purely party Government. In that case Churchill would form another Coalition Government which might be a very good thing for all concerned.
One more question must be asked and answered. Do the Tories now think that Churchill is a good leader of the Opposition and has the grumbling of two years ago dwindled and died away? Believe me—not at all. As a leader of the Opposition Winston is an absolute headache. He is utterly unpredictable and says exactly what is in his mind and in his heart. When he rages against the Government for something in which we partially believe, he looks at us in much the same way as Frederick the Great when some of his grenadiers objected to being ordered to attack for the sixth time in one day: “What! Do you want to live forever?”
That is part of the trouble. Churchill will live forever, but we who comprise the Emperor’s decimated platoon have to make the most of our mortality. We cannot fight a major battle every day.
After the election of 1945 I wrote an article for the New York Times called “Churchill, the Man with a Future.” I forget my arguments but remember the title. So perhaps as a prophet I may consider starting up in business again.
And since the Emperor is bound to see this London Letter in Maclean’s 1 think I shall leave the matter with this pointer tak*n from the past. In 1815 the House of Rothschild arranged a relay of mounted messengers to bring the news of the result of the Battle of Waterloo to London. The message of the final messenger as he staggered into the office was: “Buy British securities!”
Politically my tip is: “Buy Churchill securities!” You can still pick them up cheap in some quarters.
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